Lake Okeechobee Discharges: A Slow Painful Killer

by Mickey

Since 1925, the St. Lucie River in Florida has been connected to Lake Okeechobee by the St, Lucie canal for the purposes of flood control for the communities of the lake’s shores and boating traffic across the state via the lake. For 87 years, when heavy rains cause the lake to rise to high levels, the Army Corps of Engineers has discharged huge amounts of water east from the lake into the St. Lucie River and west into the Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers in order to restore the lake’s water level to a safe point for the community around it. According to the Army Corps, the discharges are the only way such huge volumes of water can be moved fast enough to prevent a failure of the 110-mile Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds the 730-square-mile lake. Each year as the nutrient pollution and excess fresh rainwater entering the lake increase, the effects of the dumping of Lake Okeechobee’s contents into the canal becomes more and more evident. Scores of discharge events have caused short-term and permanent destruction to the ecosystems of organisms that live in the river. Some of the problems that have occurred include: health advisories recommending no contact with the river, suffocating blue-green algae blooms, fish kills, acres of dead oysters, bare sand where there was once a seagrass meadow and fatal and non-fatal incidents with people due to the flesh eating bacteria that flourishes in the low salinity environment. These problems have arisen due to the 448 billion gallons of fresh water being dumped into the brackish water of the St. Lucie from Lake Okeechobee every year. The fresh water entering the river decreases the salinity of the river thus creating a prime environment for dangerous bacteria as well as algae to multiply and flourish causing the water to be hazardous to people and deadly to all organisms living in the ecosystem.

Sources:

Ed Killer, “Discharges from Lake Okeechobee killing St. Lucie Estuary slowly, surely,” TC Palm, January 15, 2015, http://www.tcpalm.com/news/ed-killer-discharges-from-lake-okeechobee-killing-st-lucie-estuary-slowly-surely-ep-381719187-342899742.html

Petition, “Stop the Lake Okeechobee discharges into the St Lucie River and Estuaries,” Change.org. https://www.change.org/p/rick-scott-stop-the-lake-okeechobee-discharges-into-the-st-lucie-river-and-estuaries

“Everglades Group Wants State To Buy More Big Sugar Land,” Friends of The Everglade, February 5, 2015, http://www.everglades.org/2015/02/everglades-group-wants-state-to-buy-more-big-sugar-land/

Lake Okeechobee Discharges: Mark Perry speaks out at the Save our River Clean Water Rally on August 3rd,” Florida Oceanographic Society, May 12, 2014, http://www.floridaocean.org/p/47/lake-okeechobee-discharges#.Vvm4DDjSnIX

Martha Musgrove, “Pace of Everglades restoration threatens to harm estuaries,” Sun Sentinel, January 27, 2015, http://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/commentary/fl-mmcol-oped0128-20150127-column.html

Student Researcher:   Emily Greene, Indian River State College

Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College